When you’re making a nonfiction film it’s often important to get a documentary release form from all the participants, to show that you have their permission to film them.
When do you need a documentary film release form? Examples
Ideally you would have a signed documentary film release form for anyone who appears in your documentary. This isn’t always practical, especially if you have crowd scenes shot in public or you’ve filmed at large events or public hearings. Here is some general guidance on whether or not you need signed filming waivers:
Minors/people under age 18 – Always get release forms if they’re in your film. These release forms need to be signed by their parents or guardians because they cannot legally sign them themselves.
People out in public who appear in the background of your shots – Generally speaking you don’t need to worry about getting release forms signed from bystanders. In the United States at least, people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy if they’re out in public on public property.
People at a protest march – Generally speaking, again, since these people are out in public they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy so you do not need to get release forms from them. If you do a street interview with a protester however, it would be a good idea to get them to sign a release form.
People whose journey you follow in your film – Your main “subjects” or “participants” certainly do need to sign release forms.
A politician making a speech – You do not need to get a release form signed by politicians making public speeches.
An expert you conduct a sit-down interview with – Definitely get a release form from anyone you do interviews with.
Why are documentary release forms important?
If you’re planning to put your documentary video on YouTube when you’re finished with it, the only reason you might want to get a release form from the participants is to protect yourself from any future lawsuits, however unlikely they might be.
But if you think you might eventually want to try to get your documentary distributed by a television broadcaster or you plan to try for theatrical distribution of some kind, or streaming Netflix, they may want to make sure you have the proper release forms.
What is included in a documentary release form?
A good documentary release form includes a clause that shows the person signing it understands that the ownership of the film can be transferred to another party (such as if you sell the film or some rights to a broadcaster). Another important documentary release form clause is a provision that allows you as the filmmaker to use the person’s image and likeness in advertising, like a film trailer. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that there aren’t any time limits or geographical limitations to using the footage you record.
Are there different types of documentary film release forms?
Yes! Some broadcasters may have specific in-house documentary release forms that they want you to use. But moreover there are a few different types of release forms that every documentary filmmaker should be familiar with. There are general interviewee/participant release forms for starters. But there are also special release forms for minors under the age of 18 because they can’t legally sign their own release form and need a parent or guardian to sign it for them. And finally there are also release forms for archival materials like old photographs that you may want your interviewee to provide you with.
What if I didn’t get a release form signed by someone in my film?
This is a common mistake with beginning documentary filmmakers. Often they don’t have release forms on their first day of shooting and only realize it later (or, worse, when the project is done filming and it’s time to distribute it!). The industry is rife with stories of filmmakers who failed to get release forms and were unable to accept distribution offers from broadcasters as a result.
The best policy is to always get release forms signed on set when you’re filming (ideally before you even hit the record button on your camera). But, barring that, there are a few things you can do:
- Go back and get release forms – Consider this a lesson in documentary filmmaking and a challenge as a film producer. Go back to everyone you’ve filmed with, explain that you forgot to have them sign a filming waiver. If possible it’s best to stop by and do this in person. If you absolutely must get it online, call them and explain the situation and that you’ll mail them a physical copy along with a self-addressed and stamped envelope for them to mail it back to you with. Alternatively if they have a way of scanning it you can email the form and ask them to print it, scan it and email it back to you. Naturally this works better with younger, tech savvy folks.
- Blur the faces of people whose release forms you couldn’t get signed – A broadcaster or other distributor may request that you do this for legal liability reasons. For some filmmakers having blurred faces may be an undesirable aesthetic or look but it’s better than getting sued!
- Cut people out of the film – Depending on the situation this may be a simple fix. If you’ve tried and you truly cannot get a release form signed by someone either because you do not know who they are and can’t get in touch with them, or they refuse to sign a release form, it may be better to simply edit them out of the film. Depending on the exact circumstance it may be as easy as using different shots, or you may have to find an alternative way to get across whatever piece of information they gave us in your earlier edit.
Where can you download a sample documentary release form?
If you don’t already know what a documentary release form looks like we recommend you download a documentary release form to get started.